Love and war: the language of climate breakdown

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Welcome to our Powerful and Positive climate conversations series. This is the third in a six part series exploring what works – and what doesn’t – when it comes to communicating with the people in your life about the climate and nature emergency and helping to build a movement for change. You can find the other parts here.

“It’s 2019. Can we all now please stop saying “climate change” and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?”
– Greta Thunberg


In 2020 we learned to speak the language of covid. By the end of the year we had a whole new vocabulary – r-rates, self isolation, flatten the curve, double-jabbed, delta variant – which quickly came to feel familiar and second nature.

Similarly, climate change asks us to constantly be absorbing new words and updating our language. We’re half way through 2021 and I’ve got a list of new concepts I never expected (or wanted) to learn: Cooling centre, Fire tornado, Heat dome, Ocean-surface fire. 


As a layperson who tumbled into the climate world without any kind of science or policy background, it can sometimes feel a bit like learning a new language as I wrestle with AGW and the IPCC, RCPs and COPs. At other times it feels more like playing catch-up with seventy-plus years of a particularly frenetic and depressing soap opera, trying to learn who all the characters are and how they interact. Challenging as it is, I know I’m lucky as the bulk of climate discourse takes place in my first language. 


Language around climate change evolves quickly, reflecting both new experiences of life during climate breakdown and active attempts to engineer language that’s more appealing, more urgent, more accurate, less political. For example…

Is it...

Global warming?
Global heating?
Climate change?
A crisis?
A breakdown?
A planetary emergency?


Do we...

Tackle it?
Fight it?
Address it?
Stop it?
Solve it?
Confront it?
Respond to it?


What's the deal with climate...



Being thoughtful about the language used at any level – from government comms to chats with your nan – is a good thing, but the explosion of climate-related language, and accompanying strong opinions about the ‘right’ way to talk about the whole shebang, can feel a bit overwhelming. Many words and phrases feel like they’ve aged quickly and badly, others were never quite fit for purpose, and yet others have been hijacked as marketing tools. How do we know which terms are the most impactful?


Today we thought it would be helpful to consider three quite different strategies for how we choose our words when we have climate conversations, then try and draw out some strategies that we can put into practice ourselves.


But first – for some context – how about a very brief history of how we got to ‘climate change’ in the first place? Its great grandparent is the phrase ‘inadvertent climate modification’, chosen as scientists knew the climate was shifting but didn’t have enough evidence to confidently say whether it was going to get hotter or cool down. A geochemist called Wallace Broecker used the term global warming in a paper in 1975 and it quickly went mainstream throughout the 80s, getting a boost of public awareness with the release of An Inconvenient Truth in 2006.


Despite a perception that climate change is a newish term, it was actually first used in the 1950s, but didn’t start to gain popularity until the late 80s (Margaret Thatcher used it in a 1988 speech and the International Panel on Climate Change was founded in 1989). Since the early 2010s climate change has increasingly been the preferred term as it’s more accurate in describing the bigger picture: global warming is just one aspect of climate change, and doesn’t describe the other impacts, such as increased rainfall or stronger winds.


Some people hate the phrase, others jump to its defence, but at this point climate change is widely understood and firmly embedded in public awareness.


However, some people feel it doesn’t go nearly far enough…

Strategy one: make it intense (and maybe a bit scary)

In 2019 the Guardian drew attention – both positive and negative – when it announced that it was updating its style guide to better reflect the true threat of climate change. Change, wrote editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, was too passive and gentle, and was benign replaced with ‘crisis’. Scientists, usually cautious at the use of such emotive language, helped amplify the phrase with over 11,000 signatories to a letter in the BioScience journal declaring ‘the climate crisis has arrived.’


From David Attenborough’s warnings of catastrophe and Margaret Atwood’s Everything Emergency, to local councils grudgingly pressured to declare climate emergencies, everyone was stepping up the intensity of their language. In 2019 ‘climate emergency’ was the Oxford English dictionary’s word of the year, and a team of ad writers, tasked to come up with a rebrand for climate change, offered up Global Meltdown, Scorched Earth and The Great Collapse. Thanks guys… I guess. 

How do you feel about the terms ‘crisis’, ‘emergency’ and ‘breakdown’? 

Do you feel a greater sense of urgency when you hear them and, if so, what kind of emotions arise from that feeling?

For many of us, our gut feeling is that this is the right thing to do. After all, how a topic is framed shapes how we respond to it, and a strong emotional response is more likely to nudge us to act than a raft of data. Neuroscience research company SPARK Neuro hooked up people from across American political lines, measured their brain activity and sweaty palms, and found that the phrase ‘climate crisis’ elicited an emotional response 40% greater than the phrase ‘climate change.’


Why is this? Possibly because change sounds slow, manageable, and not inherently negative, and possibly because we hear the phrase so frequently that it’s lost all meaning.


But an intense emotional response isn’t always a helpful thing. The SPARK Neuro study found that one phrase, environmental destruction, was too intense for the Republicans hearing it and caused a ‘backfiring’ effect, where they were likely to be less receptive to climate messages due to their emotional discomfort. This response was seen again in a 2020 study from Taiwan.


Consistent with these findings, many climate communicators have suggested that the now popular ‘intense’ language around climate change could be doing more harm than good; I know I’ve personally experienced what’s termed ‘emergency fatigue’. Dr David Holmes, director of the Climate Change Communication Research Hub, explains that

“there is a limited semantic ‘budget’ for using the language of emergency, and it’s possible you can lose audiences over time, particularly if there are no meaningful policies addressing the fact that there really is an ongoing emergency.”
Strategy two: Don’t mention it

When I was a student the university Christian union would lure people in for a chat with very nice chocolate donuts. I (a non-religious person) would pop in, eat as many donuts as I felt I could get away with, and have twenty minutes of positive and interesting chat about ideas such as forgiveness, tolerance, and compassion. Then I’d waddle away to my next lecture, wiping chocolate off my chin and realising that no one had quoted from the bible or even mentioned the big J.


What if low carbon behaviours and policies could be adopted without anyone ever even mentioning the C-word? Many communicators have suggested that, for the parts of society who consider any and all climate language to be alarmist, hysterical, or threatening, perhaps the best approach is to quietly stop talking about it altogether.


How does this work in practice?


Challenge yourself to have (or imagine) a conversation about climate change – the causes, impacts, or solutions – without using the word climate.


Did it feel awkward or natural? Was it easy to think of alternative ‘ways in’?

I think this is a useful reminder to us that climate jargon can be off-putting to people for all sorts of reasons, and that starting our conversations from shared values and tangible real-life experiences really does work.

Strategy three: Try new ways of talking

“Frankly I don’t think a word exists for exactly what type of emergency this is.” I agree with Dr Dann Mitchell, associate professor in atmospheric science at the University of Bristol: our vocabulary just hasn’t caught up with the climate crisis – yet. Can repurposing words, creating new ones, or finding other ways to use language help us find and communicate our way out of this mess?


For example, the word anthropocene was popularised by researchers ​​Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer to describe a new geological epoch in which humans are the dominant influence on the planet. While it hasn’t yet been formally recognised as a subdivision of geologic time, it has been enthusiastically adopted by scientists and writers, with those in favour of it suggesting it sends a strong message about the scale and lasting impact of human activities while allowing us to bundle all sorts of human-created problems – ocean acidification, an altered atmosphere, extinctions – into a single word. 


Plenty of people dislike it, suggesting that it centres humans (which is sort of what got us into this mess in the first place) and pins the blame on humanity as a whole, or perhaps human nature, rather than the small percentage of our species who could truly be held responsible. Alternatives have been suggested – such as the clunky Capitalocene – while others have begun to look beyond the anthropocene and ask: what’s next? Philosopher Donna Haraway’s Chthulucene and Glen Albrecht’s Symbiocene are future epochs when humanity has achieved a balanced relationship with other species and the earth’s systems. I wonder if looking to the far future and not just visualising the world we want but actually naming it gives us a goal, a definitive point where we know the climate crisis has been solved, the climate battle won. 


But what about the here and now; can new words help unlock new ways of framing climate change? Another Albrecht word is ‘solastalgia’ – the homesickness you have when you’re still at home – coined to describe the grief and loss of seeing familiar landscapes degrade and disappear. The Ecotopian Lexicon is a collection of loan words from different languages, speculative fiction, and social movements to offer new ways of looking at this problem, such as ‘misneach’, a Gaelic word describing a blend of courage, hopefulness, bravery, and spirit, pushing forward one foot in front of the other. 


On one hand this all feels a bit impractical and navel-gazey. On the other hand, I know that if I learn the name of a wild bird or a flower then I am able to fully see it, recognise it – and protect it. If new emotions and experiences are arising from this crisis then naming them lets us talk about them and use them to fuel our action, rather than simply experiencing them as distress. 


One of my favourite new words to describe climate change comes from environmental philosopher Timothy Morton who describes it as a ‘hyperobject’: something so huge that, no matter how much we learn about it or think about it we can’t truly conceptualise it, things that outlast us and out-scale us. His description definitely rings true for me: 


“[Climate change] is “viscous” — whatever I do, wherever I am, it sort of “sticks” to me. It is “nonlocal” — its effects are globally distributed through a huge tract of time. It forces me to experience time in an unusual way. It is “phased” — I only experience pieces of it at any one time. And it is “inter-objective” — it consists of all kinds of other entities but it isn’t reducible to them. I can’t see it. I can’t touch it. But I know it exists, and I know I’m part of it. I should care about it.”

As much as I like this, I can’t see myself casually dropping ‘hyperobject’ into conversation any time soon, and this is where existing and familiar metaphors have a role to play.


Metaphors force us to imagine, so when Greta Thunberg told world leaders at Davos ‘I want you to act as if our house is on fire’ she was issuing a powerful call to action to people listening all around the world. Margaret Klein Salamon writes  “Imagine there is a fire in your house. What do you do? What do you think about? You do whatever you can to try to put out the fire or exit the house. You make a plan of action. Your senses are heightened, you are focused like a laser, and you put your entire self into your actions. You enter emergency mode.”


There’s a common set of metaphors frequently applied to us humans (a geological force, a virus), the earth (our home, our mother, a spaceship flying through space), and our general response to climate change (a frog in a boiling pot, lemmings off a cliff, the Titanic, or paying the bill at the end of a gluttonous meal). But there’s one metaphor which is seems to be growing in popularity, and that’s climate change as a war: “Think of 2013 as the Year Zero in the battle over climate change, one in which we are going to have to win big, or lose bigger” wrote Rebecca Solnit.


For many people war is the perfect way to think of what’s facing us as it conveys urgency and risk but also opportunities for unity in the fight, individual heroism, and a defined end point, when the fighting is over and a better world emerges. Bill McKibben points out that it’s a particularly useful symbol for the fossil fuel divestment movement as it helps us name the enemy. It certainly sounds more exciting than counting carbon, eating beans and painting protest banners…


But the war symbolism doesn’t work for everyone and has some potential real world consequences for the people on the sharp end of climate impacts. Arundhati Roy points out  

“increasingly the vocabulary around [climate] is being militarized. And no doubt very soon its victims will become the ‘enemies’ in the new war without end.”
What kind of language appeals to you?

Would you feel more compelled to ‘join the fight’ or ‘help to heal’? Thinking back to part one, when we talked about engaging our communities of interest, what kind of language or metaphors can we borrow from our own lives? 

A more difficult but more powerful and positive vocabulary to draw upon is that of love.


Icelandic writer Andri Snær Magnason has pointed out that there’s a taboo against tapping into sacred or romantic language, especially for scientists and policy makers. Professor Kai Chan of the University of British Columbia has noticed the same thing: “We as scientists need to be much more in touch with our emotions and also our values. It’s helping us to recognize that we all do, surely, in one way or another, love this planet that we call home – and then asking us whether our actions are consistent with that emotion.”


How can we draw on words and metaphors linked to loving and benevolent values to make our climate conversations more powerful? George Monbiot has suggested that some rebranding is in order to help us remember what we love: ‘places of natural wonder’ instead of ‘sites of scientific interest’, ‘the living world’ replacing ‘environment’.


Paralleling the rise of the war metaphor, campaigners and communicators are increasingly using the language of love to help us have better conversations, from Dear Tomorrow and Letters To The Earth to this year’s Love it or Lose it campaign from WWF and Lil Dicky’s We Love the Earth – one of my all time favourite bits of climate outreach.

Working out your own strategy

So far this blog has been a lot of ‘some people think this works, others disagree’ – or to quote Ana Villar’s 2011 research on climate communication: “a single choice of terminology may not influence all people the same way, making strategic language choices difficult to implement.” Hmmm. 


It’s clear there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach to choosing your words when you have climate conversations, and this is good news, because you’re not a brand, or a politician, you’re a human who doesn’t need to follow a style guide. What works for one conversation may not work for the next and, as with any topic, we naturally tailor our words for the person we’re speaking to. But I think we can draw some practical tips from across the three strategies we’ve looked at today:

Talk like you

I know I keep going back to this point but the secret ingredient in every climate conversation really is you. There’s no ‘correct’ way to talk about climate, so if you feel uncomfortable with ideas of war and fighting, steer away from them, or if you find the whole emergency thing unhelpful, don’t use it. Draw on the metaphors or symbols that feel right to you, and it’ll feel right to your listener, too. 

Know that not every climate conversation needs to include the word climate.

If you’re talking to someone who seems more hostile towards the topic then focus on those areas of shared experience, like the weather or seeing fewer hedgehogs or last year’s flooding, and talk about solutions rather than causes.

So far in this blog you’ve read the world climate 68 times (69 now, oops) and you’re probably starting to tune out. The more varied ways we find to talk about the topic, the more likely we are to have engaging conversations. 

Allow yourself opportunities to explore your own responses to climate language.

Dipping into newly coined words if you find them useful (see below for places to find them) or maybe experiment with your own words to put a name to how you’re feeling. Share the words you find helpful, in conversation if you feel comfortable doing that, or online. Consider which climate words you feel drawn to, and which push you further away or invoke a backlash. 

Where you can, choose words that suggest possibility, opportunity, and action.

And put yourself in the action too – remember those dynamic descriptive norms from last week?). Words like protect, save, restore, heal, rescue, care, and cherish appeal to intrinsic values and motivate people to act in line with those values. 

If you take just one thing away from today’s blog I hope it is this: there’s no single perfect way to frame the climate crisis, and you should never let a worry about using the ‘right’ words put off using your voice. Language matters – and working out how we prefer to use it will make us better communicators – but ultimately it doesn’t matter as much as you bringing your personal perspective and your own story. 

In the next part of this series we’re going to try and understand why planet-friendly lifestyle choices sometimes come under attack, and how to handle that kind of conversation in a powerful and positive way. 


In the meantime, we’d love to hear your feedback on the things we’ve explored today – comment below, drop us an email, or find us on social media to let us know what you think. Please do let us know also if there are particular questions or topics you’d like us to cover as part of this series in the future. 

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